Olive Harvest

Black Syrian Olives

All members of the family take part in this annual tradition: Harvesting the blessing of olive fruit from our very own olive grove. We have about 60 olive trees in various ages (from several hundred years old transplants that were kicked off an avocado plantation about 20 years ago; trees we planted and grafted almost 40 years ago, and newer ones that don't even bear fruit yet).

We take a week off our real jobs and work harder than ever getting all the olives picked between the first rainfall (which washes the dust) and the second. Too much rain will spoil the olives rapidly and make them useless for olive oil. It is more of a regional family tradition than it is a profitable endeavour.

This year I'm especially excited to harvest the olives (a very tedious task, which I never particularly liked) because I've been using a lot of olive oil in my soaps and it's important for me to really experience the connection between the earth, plants and finished products - from start to finish. This is one of the main reasons I moved back to the village, and I hope to also grow and produce my own essential oils eventually.
Olive Harvest 2017

We grow the "Syrian" varietal, which is very sharp in favour and yields a lot of oil. We press most of them for oil, and set a side a little bit for pickling and eating.
Green Olives for Pickling
These green olives I set aside for pickling...

Olive Tree Acrobatics
Cirque de Huile:
Some olive harvest acrobatics performed by my sister-in-law.
Tools of the Trade
This little rake looks like a toy, but it's actually the most important tool of the trade... We use it to "brush" the olives off the branches. It saves a lot of fine manual labour and does not harm the tree as much as beating it with sticks.
Olive Harvest 2017
Okay... Time for a coffee break! I will post more pics as the harvest progresses. This year I also plan to go to the olive press myself to make the oil. Going to be fun!


Soapmaking in the planning
My idea of a perfect (summer) includes a lot of R & D (research and development) in the lab. Earlier this summer, before humidity got out of hand, I got my act together and created my first batch of soap, ever. It was the exact same formula that Open Source Soap used for creating all my fragrance 3-in-1 soap bars. I decided on an unscented soap for my first batch, because I really wanted to see and experience the soap in its pure form  - and also avoid painful loss of precious fragrant materials in case I screw up.
Pouring my first batch of soap ever
The process is a tad tedious and time consuming, requiring one to be precise with the temperatures and also extra cautious with the lye's caustic properties. It was a rather humid day when I made it, so I realized pretty fast that it is very uncomfortable to work with goggles and gloves when the air is so slippery and moist; and also there is that feeling that the air would cary the caustic fumes far too easily into my system. No harm was done, but I am now convinced that winter is the best time for this kind of production (or R & D, for that matter).
Cured soap
I've used stainless steel loaf pans as molds. I made a mistake of not putting any linings (I didn't want them to have wrinkles at the bottom). Turns out it was near impossible to get the soap out after the 24 hour hardening period. But I managed to do it anyway.
Soap slicing
The result I'm very pleased with as far as the soap consistency, properties (lathering, moisturizing) albeit its messy look. I know that if it was possible to take it out of the mold easily they would have been beautiful, so for next time I'm going to use a different procedure for the pouring process and probably use a different mold - probably will reuse 1L milk cartons. The bars will have a different size than they did under Schuyler's hands (he used 2L juice cartons, and than cut them in the middle to create a long shaped rectangle). Mine will be more on the squarish side.
Post-Soapmking Mess
I ended up with a lot of soap shavings, from which I can make a liquid soap or just use for hand washing clothes etc.
Post-Soapmking Mess - Cleanup
Cleanup time!
(Which is super easy, by the way - especially with my designated sink and stainless steel surfaces - yay!).


I am now waiting at least for a dry weather to proceed with more experiments. In the meantime, I'm creating oil infusions of herbs that could be incorporated into the soap, from wild herbs that grow here - for example Varthemia and Sage. Having appropriate space makes all the difference - I have room for large- mouthed jars that can sit around for months if needed and still not take up much of my ongoing workspace. It is so refreshing to have a studio built especially for the purpose I need it for. I can't even begin to tell you how thrilled I am about that and all the possibilities of what I can do next.

Olive Harvest

Harvest season has different flavours, textures, aromas and colours from place to place depending on what crops can be grown there. While here in North America fall harvest is all about corn and pumpkins and yams - in the Mediterranean region, fall surrounds the central event of olive harvest, similarly to how in late spring is all about the wheat harvest. These two cycles are connected all to the rain, which make all events very time-sensitive and a bit stressful for the farmers and their families. Especially when considering how precious rain is in the area. We spend the year in anticipation for the rain and the first rain is a major event!

Wheat fields are sowed before the first rain, so that they can get as much rainfall as possible and sprout. Olives are harvested right after the first rain, so that the summer's dust is washed off the olives' skins. And the olives must be picked before too much more rain arrives, so that they don't become all soggy or rot - this will not produce a very good oil!

So for me, growing up in the Western Galilee, fall harvest is identified with the scent of olives. And this is not the olives you are familiar with from the jars or cans or on top of your pizza. These are fresh olives before they get pickled in brine or salt. Their aroma is not as pungent as some other fruit could be; and it only will release itself if the fruit is bruised. But you can rest assured that by the end of a day spent picking olives, your hands will smell like olives - green, oily, waxy - and will taste awfully bitter!

olive harvesting in tuscany, originally uploaded by mestolando.com.

This is how olives are harvested in Tuscany - and it's pretty much the same way it's done elsewhere, although some like to beat around the trees (pun intended) with sticks. It's not really effective and a lot of leaves fall to the ground, and a lot of olives just stay on the tree... And as you can see in this photo - the ground is covered with fine sprouts of wild grasses and weeds of all sorts that just woke up from the first rain... Harvesting olives may be tedious, and is like a race against the next rain, but you are sure to spend the days in the fresh air, enjoying the kisses from the gentler autumn sun, and socializing with family and neighbours that all work towards the same goal: pressing the finest olive oil possible for that year, and perhaps also producing a few jars of pickled olives while they're at it.

I'd be curious what are your association with "harvest" wherever in the world you are or grew up in.

Virtues of Olive Oil

Mediterranean Gold, originally uploaded by Kuzeytac.

Olive (Olea europaea) is native to the east basin of the Mediterranean ocean, whose other fragrant family members include jasmine, lilac and osmanthus (aka sweet olive). Although olives can be grown in other places successfully (i.e.: California), the best olive oils are those grown in the region. I am, of course, impartial to the olive oils grown where I come from: the Western Galilee in Israel. Since biblical times, this was the region of olive oil. Perhaps it’s all Jacob’s fault, as he blessed his son Asher (whose tribe inherited this part of the land): “me Asher shmena lachmo, ve hu yiten ma’adanei melech” (Genesis, XLIX, 20) - Translation: “out of Asher his bread will be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties”.

The plant's uses are not limited to food: the oil was also used in coronation rituals, in cosmetics, toiletries and last but not least - in "oil candles" (see picture above). Pure virgin olive oil of the highest quality was used in the Jewish tabernacle and temple Menorah to keep an eternal light at the holy place. And this is what the Hanukkah story is all about - the miracle of one little can of oil that instead of one day, lasted for 8 days, until consecrated, pure olive oil will be brought from the Western Galilee to Jerusalem.

Two Olive Trees, originally uploaded by elkost.

Although the trees are not very tall (they grow about 8-15m high at the most), they grow a thick trunk that becomes hollow with age. The olive trees require no watering (except for when the trees are very young, in the first couple of years after planting). These are hardy trees that are used to the dry conditions and can survive no rain for many months. Tending the trees, besides the harvest, requires some tending to after the harvest season: pruning the trees, aerating the earth around them by plowing and fertilizing (usually with cow manure) once the harvest is over. Aside from that, the trees are pretty much left to themselves for the rest of the year.

The harvest takes place in the fall, after the first rain washes the dust off the olives and before the rain season begins (which will spoil the fruit). This usually happens in late October and early November. Most olive growers are Druze and Arabic families who grow the same olives on their estate for hundreds of years. The harvest season is intense and quite stressful as all the work has to be done between the 1st rain and the 2nd rain. Failing to do this on time will result in loss of crops or an inferior olive oil. Therefore, the extended family usually drops everything else – work, business and school for the kids – to make sure the olives are all off the trees before the 2nd rain. All ages participate in the harvest, including young children (even toddlers) and the old, who can at least help with sorting out the olives (i.e.: chucking out the spoiled ones and those infested with worms) and putting aside those suitable for pickling. The green (unripe) olives contain more oil than the black ones. Most of the fruit is pressed into oil, but some is pickled (usually you would take out the bigger, nicer looking olives for pickling), and of course the very ripe black ones would be set aside for special preparation (see more below under “Culinary Uses”).

In my region, the harvest season has now been extended into an “Olive Harvest Festival” to celebrate the region’s historical treasure and to promote peace between Arabs and Jews through cultural celebrations such as music, dance, and of course – food with olives and olive oil.

The Olive Oil Plant 1, originally uploaded by Omri Suissa.

The olives are all brought to the olive pressing house, which functions as an olive-oil co-op. Each family’s crop will be weighed before pressing, and the family will in return get an equivalent percentage to their contribution of the oil produced. A set percentage remains with the pressing house, as a form of payment.

Olive oil is the only oil expressed from a fruit (rather than a seed or a nut). And is the only one that is truly cold pressed. There are three grades of olive oil:

Virgin olive oil, which is produced from lightly pressing on the olives and requires no filtration. It is produced from grinding the olive fruit into a paste, traditionally using millstones, which are now replaced with steel drums. The paste is than placed in a centrifuge to mechanically separate the oil from the paste (the paste sinks to the bottom). This grade is the most desirable grade for food preparation and for consumption, and has the highest levels of antioxidants (which account for its slightly bitter taste). Some virgin olive oils are also filtered to get rid of the cloudy residues. Extra virgin olive oil is processed the same as virgin olive oil, but also “satisfies specific high chemical and organoleptic criteria (low free acidity, no or very little organoleptic defects)” (Wikipedia)

Grade A oil is obtained by further pressing the olive fruit which remained from the virgin oil production, and requires some refinement.

Grade B oil is produced from extracting the remaining fruit in hexane.

Another grade, which is called pomace oil, is produced by using the residue of fruit used fro grade B oils, and also grinding the pits of the olives, which also contain oil on their own. This process may also require some extraction with solvent (hexane). These are mostly valuable for soapmaking and not so much for cooking or cosmetics.

Chemical Makeup:
Contains mixed triglyceride esters of oleic acid and palmitic acid and of other fatty acids, along with traces of squalene (up to 0.7%) and sterols (about 0.2% phytosterol and tocosterols) (Wikipedia).

Health Benefits:
To name a few of the main ones:

- Lowers the “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood while preventing oxidation of the “good” cholesterol in the blood
- Cardioprotective benefits (i.e.: reduces the risk of coronary heart diseases, when used instead of less beneficial fats in one’s diet).

- Helps to balance omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats.

- Anti-oxidant. Interestingly, the elderly Druze in the Galilee touted a morning routine that involved drinking a glass of virgin olive oil on an empty stomach, to promote health and longevity. Also, the oldest woman in recorded history, Jean Calment, credited her longevity and her healthy skin to deliberately use of olive oil in her diet.

Cretan olive harvest, originally uploaded by Peace Correspondent.

Culinary Uses:
The ripe (black) or unripe (green) fruit can be pickled in salt water.
The green olives need to be cracked or slashed and soaked and rinsed in water for several weeks first to remove their bitterness; than pickled in brine (water and salt) and spices of choice (usually wedged lemons, whole cloves of garlic and a few dried hot peppers will suffice) for about 2 months, or until the olives developed their typical pickled-olive colour and their bitterness has subsided drastically.
The black ones can be pickled immediately, or layered with coarse salt in a basket to preserve. After 3 months the black brine olives will be ready to serve: rinsed with water, drained, and than sprinkled with olive oil and fresh herbs of choice (rue leaf is a classic addition).

Olives are an indispensable condiment, served with Mezze (traditional Middle Eastern appetizers and salads), made into tapanades, added to Martinis, sandwiches and more.

Olive oil is best used fresh, rather than a cooking or frying oil. My favourite salad dressing is a simple squeeze of lemon juice from ½ a lemon (if you squeeze it by hand some of the lemon essential oils drip from the peel to the juice) and about 2 Tbs. of extra virgin olive oil. Really you don’t need anything else to make a perfect salad dressing, not even salt or pepper.

I like drizzling olive oil onto pasta after it’s been cooked, with or without the tomato sauce.

A simple bread dip can be made by blending together olive oil and balsamic vinegar and/or soy sauce. A clove of garlic is optional. It’s a great substitute for butter and really goes fantastically well with freshly baked bread. Another condiment I grew up on was “Za’atar”, a combination of wild herbs, primarily hyssop, with a touch of wild mountain thyme and white mint (when available), sumac and sesam seeds. These are either sprinkled on yogurt cheese (“Labaneh”) or mixed into a paste with the olive oil and used as a spread or a dip for pita and other regional flat breads.

Steamed vegetables, when fresh and in season, don’t need much more dressing up besides olive oil. Try using a drizzle of olive oil and a touch of sea salt or fleur de sel on steamed broccoli, brussles sprouts or asparagus. It will transform both your health and your cuisine.

Similarly, you can use olive oil in potato puree. Mash the potatoes with a little bit of the water they were cooked in, a touch of salt, a tablespoon or two of extra virgin olive oil and a dash of thyme. And the same trick with yams is out of this world yummy.

Skin-Care Properties:
Humectant, moisturizing, anti-oxidant. It creates a protective film on the skin, absorbs moisture from the air yet without clogging the skin or interfering with its cell activity (breathing, shedding, regeneration, etc.).

Aegean Pearl -- Baby Olive, originally uploaded by Kuzeytac.

Beauty and Body Care Uses:
Olive oil is used in both skin care and hair care products, incorporated into body lotions, salt and sugar scrubs, shampoos and conditioners. Castile soap was originally a soap made of olive oil as the only fat, and it is a very mild soap though without much lather – it has wonderful cleansing properties without drying the skin and is gentle enough to use on babies. The Druze from the nearby village made castile soap like that from the olive pomace and it was mild enough to wash babies clothes in it (we’d grate it to make soap flakes) but also powerful enough to remove some tough stains.

The oil itself can be used as massage oil, and will keep the skin smooth and moisturized. Applying virgin olive oil to the scalp before shampooing will help reduce dandruff or flaky itchy scalp. It can either be applied as is or warmed up first as a warm hair-mask (cover your hair with plastic bag and a towel to keep the heat on the head). Olive oil can be also applied to the tips of your hair if it’s dry and also as an all-natural, simple styling product (just don’t put too much!).

For more Mediterranean beauty tips incorporating olive oil, read Helg’s excellent “review” of olive oil on Makeup Alley. What else do you use olive oil for? Please share your wisdom by commenting below.

New Perspective On Olive

Olives and Donkeys, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.

Happy Last Day of Hanukkah everyone!

Hope you've all enjoyed the light so far, warmth, family & company these past 7 days and 8 nights.

As far as oil goes… Commemorating the miracle of the little bottle of olive oil isn’t all about deep fried donuts and pan fried Latkes. I’m sure we’re all fed up with them by now! I’d like to say a few good things about olive oil. Olive oil can be used year around for health, beauty and good taste… From skin and hair care to antioxidant diet that is low in saturated fats and full of flavour and vitamins, olive oil seems to be more than just an oil. It can become a way of life and brig light to our life, metaphorically speaking.

Olives are native to the Mediterranean, and although olives can be grown in other places successfully (i.e.: California), the best olive oils are those grown in the region. I am, of course, most fond of the olive oils grown in the Western Galilee in Israel. Since biblical times, this was the region of olive oil. Perhaps it’s all Jacob’s fault, as he blessed his son Asher (whose tribe inherited this part of the land): “me Asher shmena lachmo, ve hu yiten ma’adanei melech” (Genesis, XLIX, 20) - Translation: “out of Asher his bread will be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties”.

ancient_olive_press&olive_trees, originally uploaded by gcwtucson.

I happened to grow in that exact same region, where the flavour of olives is rich and the olive harvest is a bug cultural celebration (ancient olive presses like you see in the above photo can be found almost everywhere, and there were remains of an ancient one just by our house). At that time (the delicate time between the first rain, which washes the dust off the olives; and the next rain, usually 2-3 weeks after, which threatens to permeate the olives with unwanted moisture, bring in decay and subsequently, wreck their rich flavour either by watering it down or spoiling the entire crop). Most of the people in the Druze and Arab villages own at least some piece of land with some olives on it and at this time of year they are busy day and night to meet that unpredictable deadline. That means no school for the kids and many business shut down to help other members in the family with the olive harvest. My village, although neither Druze nor Arabic, acted similarly. If we did go to school, we spent the last hours of daylight picking olives, and to the late night, sorting them and making sure no rotten olives will find their way to the olive press. After a few weeks of hard labour, sore backs and fingers that were unavoidably bitter-tasting (the flavour of unprocessed olives is terribly bitter!), our proud parents took the olive press house. They waited in line with all the other olive pickers, sat on their sacks of olives, and when it was their turn to weigh their olives, they got even prouder, because every year as the trees grew older), the yield was higher. The beauty of going to the olive press house was that it cost nothing to get your olives pressed. Your olives were weighed, and than the yield of oil was measured. Each olive picker will receive a portion of the oil yielded. A certain portion remains with the olive press house owner, to be sold, and that is where the money factor came into play… There has to be a certain trust amongst the pickers than, that they all took out the dirty and bad olives out of their crops, so that the olive oil will be the best that it could be.

But perhaps the most important thing about engaging in the olive picking traditions of the region was that by doing so, our parents interacted with all the other villagers (from other ethnic groups), something that most Jewish Israelis did not do back in those days (fortunately, now the neighbouring Jewish Israeli villages - AKA Kibbutzim and Moshavim – have finally acknowledged this and there is an annual celebration of the olive harvest in the Galilee, incorporating the cultures of all the ethnic groups in the Galilee through music, food and olive picking.

I started this article with plans to talk about the health and beauty benefits of olive. But now I feel this discussion is heading a completely different direction. Perhaps it is for a reason that olive branches are a symbol of peace. Perhaps there is much more to this tree than we can see on the surface, or eve in the hollows of these ancient trees.

To conclude, here are a few interesting little tales about olives, olive oil and the olive trees:

My mother, a sponge for all folklore and herbal intelligence related to the local herbs in the Western Galilee (just pick a weed from your garden and she’ll find a therapeutic use for it she learned from the local Druze and Palestinian women in the neighbouring villages), told me about a couple of interesting uses for olive oil. The old Druze men and women we met, who all seemed to live long and full life and work physically even when they were really old - shared with us their secret for youth and vitality: half a cup of olive oil, drunk on empty stomach first thing in the morning, along with a clove of garlic. Olive oil is known for its beneficial anti-oxidants, which assist in the regeneration of cells from within (as part of one’s diet) and without (in skincare). The other interesting piece of intelligence my mother has gathered from local women and midwives was something that if you are serious about NOT getting pregnant, you should NOT try yourself: An olive oil soaked cotton balls used to make primitive vaginal sponges amongst women in the region. I was surprised to find mentions of this curious early contraception methods in other websites, including Planned Parenthood's history of contraception.
“Aristotle, a Greek teacher-philosopher (384–322 BCE), considered olive oil mixed with cedar oil, lead ointment, or frankincense the ideal contraceptive. This mixture was applied to "that part of the womb in which the seed falls." (quoted from MedHunters)

Olive oil is an excellent moisturizer, not only because its excellent vitamins absorb into the skin and its content of squalene (pay attention, vegans and vegetarians: there IS squalene oil that is not extracted from shark liver, but from olives!). Olive oil creates a protective film around the skin that is nourishing and can also protect from the cold and other weather conditions. And most interestingly – it has the unique property of absorbing moisture from the air. Therefore it is excellent for skin, scalp and haircare. For more ideas about how to use olive oil creatively, I suggest you read what Helg (of Perfume Shrine) had published as her olive oil “product review” on Make Up Alley.

Last but not least: I cannot recommend highly enough incorporating olive oil into your diet as much as possible, for those instances when you want the nourishing and fulfilling sensation of a yummy fat – on your bread, steamed vegetables, and so on. Switching to an olive oil condiment based diet is fun and easy. Olive oil makes the base for pesto (a most delicious base for any savoury sandwich!), can be blended with either balsamic vinegar or soy sauce (or both) for a delicious aperitif bread-dip (a bit of crushed garlic can be added too). The Middle Eastern people have developed many condiments, depending on their region, of herbs and spices mixed with olive oil for spreading on bread or for bread dipping. Much like the pesto – only with dry herbs, the Za’atar is a mixture of various thyme and hyssop herbs from the mountains, mixed with ground sumac and sesame seeds. In Egypt, the alternative is ground sesame seeds and ground walnuts, mixed with spices – primarily cumin and coriander. This mixture is either served as a dip with olive oil, or sprinkled overtop steamed rice, salad or vegetables. Similarly, the flavour of any steamed vegetables would be enhanced by a drizzle of god quality olive oil. Living in North America for the past 9 years have influenced me to use more butter than I used to. So I was utterly surprised when I tried to use olive oil on my asparagus a few days ago. With just a touch of salt and nothing more, the asparagus was the most delicious side dish I had in a long time. And this was achieved quite effortlessly, by not overcooking the branches, and by not using butter, but just the best quality olive oil I could find. And needless to say, olive oil makes the best salad dressing. I use nothing buy olive oil and lemon juice in my daily salads, and the results are never short of stunning… But than I’m known for my salad addiction.

So, one last day tomorrow for enjoying olive oil in a traditional Hanukkah context. Perhaps you can share your favourite olive oil recipes or any other uses for olive oil by adding a comment below.
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